Likely the most influential writer in all of English literature and certainly the most important playwright of the English Renaissance, William Shakespeare was born in 1564 in the town of Stratford-upon-Avon in Warwickshire, England. The son of a successful middle-class glove-maker, Shakespeare attended grammar school, but his formal education proceeded no further. In 1582, he married an older woman, Anne Hathaway, and had three children with her. Around 1590 he left his family behind and traveled to London to work as an actor and playwright.
Public and critical success quickly followed, and Shakespeare eventually became the most popular playwright in England and part owner of the Globe Theater. His career bridged the reigns of Elizabeth I (ruled 1558-1603) and James I (ruled 1603-1625); he was a favorite of both monarchs. Indeed, James granted Shakespeare's company the greatest possible compliment by endowing them with the status of king's players.
Wealthy and renowned, Shakespeare retired to Stratford, and died in 1616 at the age of fifty-two. At the time of Shakespeare's death, such luminaries as Ben Jonson hailed him as the apogee of Renaissance theatre. Shakespeare's works were collected and printed in various editions in the century following his death, and by the early eighteenth century his reputation as the greatest poet ever to write in English was well established.
The unprecedented admiration garnered by his works led to a fierce curiosity about Shakespeare's life; but the paucity of surviving biographical information has left many details of Shakespeare's personal history shrouded in mystery. Some people have concluded from this fact that Shakespeare's plays in reality were written by someone else—Francis Bacon and the Earl of Oxford are the two most popular candidates—but the evidence for this claim is overwhelmingly circumstantial, and the theory is not taken seriously by many scholars. In the absence of definitive proof to the contrary, Shakespeare must be viewed as the author of the 37 plays and 154 sonnets that bear his name.
The legacy of this body of work is immense. A number of Shakespeare's plays seem to have transcended even the category of brilliance, becoming so influential as to affect profoundly the course of Western literature and culture ever after. Troilus and Cressida is one of Shakespeare's later plays, written shortly after Hamlet (1600-01), but before the other great tragedies. Composed around 1602, it was probably performed in the winter of 1602-3, but no record of the performance survives, and the play itself was not published in a collection for six more years.
For these reasons, a number of critics have suggested that it was performed only once, or not at all—possibly because some of the characters in the Greek and Trojan armies were thinly disguised caricatures of contemporaries, either of other playwrights or of members of King James's court. The genre classification of Troilus and Cressida has been in dispute from the beginning. Labeled a history play in an early folio, it bears superficial similarities to the tragedies, but lacks much of the typical tragic plot structure.
Today, Troilus and Cressida is often grouped with the so-called "problem comedies"—with Measure for Measure and All's Well That Ends Well. All three share a dark, bitter wit and a pessimistic view of human relations that contrast sharply with earlier, sunnier comedies like Twelfth Night and As You Like It. Sources for the play include classical mythology and Homer'sIliad , which contains the Achilles-Hector story arc. The romance of Troilus and Cressida is derived from pseudo-Homeric medieval sources—and, of course, from Chaucer's great fourteenth-century epic, Troilus and Criseyde.
(Shakespeare, true to form, used only the bare bones of these stories for his play, and emphasized the Elizabethan idea of Cressida's falseness over Chaucer's more sympathetic interpretation.) In reading Troilus and Cressida, it is important to remember the popularity of all these stories in Shakespeare's time. For the audience, the story of Troy was a well-known one and the events of the play, including the denouement, would have been expected from the beginning—Cressida's treachery and Hector's death would have been as predictable as the sinking of the Titanic is for moviegoers today.